Read On! The Nineteenth Amendment and the U.S. “Women’s Emancipation Policy” in Post-World War II Occupied Japan: Going Beyond Suffrage

Written by Cornelia Weiss.

In 2019, the Akron Law School proactively celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment during a day-long conference. It was at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio that in 1851 Sojourner Truth delivered one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. And it was in Homer, Ohio that the first female candidate for U.S. president, Victoria Woodhull, issued speeches from the top of a mound in her childhood. 

As a result of the 2019 conference, the Akron Law Review issued a special edition on the 19th Amendment. My article, The Nineteenth Amendment and the U.S. “Women’s Emancipation Policy” in Post-World War II Occupied Japan: Going Beyond Suffrage (https://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/akronlawreview/vol53/iss2/4/), addresses what may be the first U.S. feminist foreign policy: emancipation of women in Post-World War II Occupied Japan. The article discussed what actions were taken and what actions were knowingly not taken during this period as well as the consequences of these actions, inactions, and failures for present day Japan (and for the greater world). 

A mere 25 years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage had transformed from being controversial to being an ingrained assumption of what constitutes “democracy” by a five star military general, General Douglas MacArthur (the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers to Japan). MacArthur advised Japanese leaders in Post-WWII Occupied Japan: “In the achievement of the Potsdam Declaration, the traditional social order under which the Japanese people for centuries have been subjugated will be corrected.” He continued: “In the implementation of these requirements and to accomplish the purposes thereby intended, I expect you to institute the following reforms in the social order of Japan as rapidly as they can be assimilated.” His first demand: “The emancipation of the women of Japan.” How?: “[T]hrough their enfranchisement – that, being members of the body politic, they may bring to Japan a new concept of government directly subservient to the well being of the home.” 

Going beyond suffrage included a constitution with equal rights (what the U.S. Constitution still precludes 100 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment). Beate Sirota, the drafter of women’s rights provisions in Japan’s Constitution, drafted not only “equal rights,” but also provisions that went beyond the “equal rights” in today’s Constitution of Japan, to include social guarantees. 

Yet Sirota’s military bosses, before submitting the U.S. drafted constitution to the Japanese government, stripped many of the women’s rights provisions. Colonel Kades (the head of the U.S. Steering Committee) said: “Beate, you have given women more rights than there are in the U.S. Constitution!” Her response? “That’s not difficult, since the U.S. Constitution does not even mention the word woman.” 

In justifying the exclusion of many women’s rights in the draft Constitution, Lieutenant Colonel Rowell maintained: “It isn’t the Government Section’s job to establish a perfect system of guarantees. If we push hard for things like this, we could well encounter strong opposition. In fact, I think there is a danger the Japanese government might well reject our draft entirely.” Yet the U.S. head of the Government Section had told the U.S. drafters that if the Japanese government “hope to protect the Emperor and to maintain political power, they have no choice but to accept a constitution with a progressive approach, namely the fruits of our current efforts.” He stated: “I expect we’ll manage to persuade them. But if it looks as though it might prove impossible, MacArthur has already authorized both the threat of force and the actual use of force.” 

What is the effect of excluding many of Beate Sirota’s provisions within the Japanese Constitution? Colonel Kades had said to Sirota: “Don’t worry. We will be here for a long time and we will see to it that they get in.” Beate Sirota’s fear that “bureaucrats [would be] . . . so conservative that they could not be relied upon to extend adequate rights to women” came true. While Japan (unlike the U.S.) has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a review of the 2016 CEDAW Committee’s Observations on Japan highlights gaps that harm women. For example, the 2016 CEDAW Committee decried the absence of legislation that govern the distribution of property upon dissolution of marriage, finding that, as a result of this absence of legislation:

  • Women in Japan are placed at a disadvantage because negotiations and agreements on property distribution happen outside legal regulation where power imbalances between women and men exist.
  • Most divorcing women in Japan lack the necessary information and means to demand disclosure of their husbands’ financial situation, including business and career assets, as the law does not provide any procedural tools and guidelines.
  • And in Japan, in cases where no agreement is reached for paying child support, children in Japan are left destitute.

While arguably not all deficiencies in present-day Japanese law can be traced back to the U.S. (male) drafters’ deliberate exclusions, my paper highlights the importance of employing “gender-aware” thinkers and doers who understand that women’s “emancipation” must be a priority. Think about the current on-and-off negotiations with the Taliban for “peace” and whether this “peace” will fulfill the promise made years ago by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the women of Afghanistan: “[W]e will not abandon [you].”

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